“I continue to search for the great collection that will rise from the ashes of war,” explains Glenn Close, who performs as the legendary Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow in the upcoming television series The new look.
When the Nazi occupation of Paris ended in 1945, the city’s once cherished couture scene was deserted. Many houses, including Chanel, had closed, while the few names that had continued to trade and (knowingly or naively) sold ball gowns to Nazi women were now somewhat tainted in the eyes of the newly liberated French customer.
Against this background, Christian Dior launched his debut collection in 1947. The reception was rapturous, the lines regarded as green shoots. Snow and her colleagues had found the revolutionary they were looking for. “My dear Christian,” said Snow in real life, “your dresses have such a new look.” The collection and its reception changed the way we dress.
The new look, which launches on Apple TV on February 14, charts Dior’s beginnings as one of the world’s best-known couturiers. The director Todd A Kessler (the writer behind Injurywho started his career The sopranos) has assembled a stellar cast: Ben Mendelsohn as Monsieur Dior, Juliette Binoche as his rival Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, John Malkovich as his former employer Lucien Lelong and Close as their promoter, Snow. Acting legends play fashion legends, one match at a time.
But behind the glamour, the series explores the events from this unique turning point in fashion history, which “have never been dramatized before,” says Kessler. The Telegraph. “The extraordinary circumstances that led Christian Dior to launch his first collection in 1947 provided the inspiration for The new look. The four-year Nazi occupation of Paris and the horrors of World War II, which affected almost everyone alive at the time, led to a revival of creativity.”
In ten episodes, Kessler depicts, romanticizes and reinforces the camaraderie and rivalry between Dior and its contemporaries (particularly Chanel, Pierre Balmain and Lelong). He unravels the difficulties that each personality faced during the Second World War: the question of whether to continue designing, and for clients on which side the fight to support the efforts of the French Resistance, while presenting their face as high-profile retain individuals. Many of the glittering fashion leaders in Paris were attractive names who wanted to meet the Nazi leaders and, in some cases, move to Berlin.
So how much of the story is true? Dior began his career as a gallerist and then as an illustrator, before taking a job as a house designer at Robert Piguet in 1938. After being called up for military service in 1939, he returned to Paris to design for the house of Lucien Lelong.
Kessler’s drama begins here, in 1943, as Dior and his colleague Pierre Balmain, apparently tired of designing for someone else’s name, struggle with the moral dilemma of accepting wages in exchange for making dresses, while the only people who still had parties were the Nazis.
Zooming in on this specific moment in time is very complex – and therefore ripe for dramatization. Kessler spent seven years researching “not only the personal stories of Dior and his contemporaries (Chanel, Balenciaga, Balmain, Lelong, Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, to name a few), but also the two decades in France that preceded the Nazi occupation of Paris,” he says. “It was important for me to understand as best as possible the French perspective on life and freedom, and what it then meant to have that taken away by the Germans.”
Chanel’s loyalties during the war seemed contradictory: it is known that she was registered as a trusted source by the Nazi authorities in July 1941, under the codename Westminster. Yet it is recorded that she joined the French Resistance as an occasional agent in January 1943.
She closed her couture business in 1939 and did not reopen until February 1954, at the age of 71. By then, Dior was considered a master of couture and the most famous designer in the world – Chanel’s comeback was amplified in the press. . “Beware M. Dior – Ms. Chanel may be one step ahead of you,” British journalist Jean Wiseman wrote at the time.
Catherine Dior, Christian’s beloved younger sister, was instrumental in inspiring the creation of his eponymous house. She was an active member of the French Resistance, eventually captured and taken to Ravensbrück in August 1944. Her courageous story is usually overshadowed by her older brother’s phenomenal success. Yet her safe return to Paris in May 1945 added to the optimism the designer felt in creating his New Look, and the Miss Dior fragrance, which was sprayed through his studio as he advanced his new design ideas.
“Catherine’s return seemed to bring about a change in Christian,” Justine Picardie, the author of Miss Dior: a story of courage and couturewrote The Telegraph in 2021. “Having shown no particular ambition to have his own couture house, he suddenly found the confidence to do so in April 1946. When he showed his New Look collection, Catherine was in the audience watching.”
Actor Maisie Williams, who plays Catherine in the series, read Picardie’s book before accepting the role, and listened to chapters of the audiobook every night before bed during filming.
“Everything that Catherine went through is not really public knowledge,” says Williams The Telegraph. “When we think about fashion and Christian Dior, we don’t really think about Catherine at all. But the life she lived and the impact she had was such a big part of his inspiration. I wanted to tell the human story so people could identify with the way she influenced him.”
In his 1957 autobiography, Dior wrote that his “unfortunate chapter had ended” when Catherine returned. Also encouraged by seeing Pierre Balmain leave Lelong and set up his own company, he followed suit. He visited a fortune teller, received financial support from the Boussac Group and considered it a seal of fate when the building he had admired at 30 Avenue Montaigne became available for rent.
“My optimism allowed me to temporarily forget that we were still living in the aftermath of a terrible war,” Dior reflected in his memoirs. ‘Its traces were all around me – damaged buildings, devastated countryside, rationing… and less serious, but of more immediate concern to me, horrible fashion. Hats were way too big, skirts way too short, coats way too long, shoes way too heavy.”
He went to stay with friends in Fleury-en-Bière and within two weeks sketched the basis of his debut Corolle and En 8 lines – the elegant collections that would later be called “The New Look”. His vision was to make women, whose access to fabrics was limited and who may have worn only uniforms for a while, feel feminine and beautiful, with round shoulders, tight waists and full skirts. His dresses had glamorous names – Gala, Vogue, Songe (dream) – to indicate where they should be worn and what feelings they might evoke in the wearer.
“We were just emerging from a poverty-stricken thrifty era, obsessed with ration books and clothing coupons,” Dior later thought. “It was only natural that my creations would take the form of a response to this lack of imagination.”
That intuition, according to Kessler, was the key to success. His series, although dramatized, offers audiences the opportunity to understand the heartache and saga that gave rise to one of the most recognized labels in the world.
Kessler wants the audience to “hit the pause button,” he says. “We speak these names every day in streets, airports, fashion houses. We have to ask ourselves who are the people behind the names we have known all our lives?”